Non-attachment is a subtle and far reaching internal orientation away from depending on things. These things include all “objects” which the subject might fallaciously come to believe are either itself, or needed to support itself. This includes cars, food, relationships, ideas, thoughts, emotions, indeed all phenomena which occur in “experience”. Objects which confuse experience also includes all “spiritual experiences, awakenings and states”.
Illustration by Emily Bowers
The yoga sutras on patanjali focus on just this issue, in that they presuppose that the problem of existence is that “consciousness has become entangled with the world” and the disentangling of the two is the work of the yogi. In this way yoga practice is very similar to buddhist practice (the difference being that the yoga tradition believes that pure consciousness exists whereas the buddhist tradition, at least theravada, also regards consciousness as a construct, the true reality being just emptiness). In this way buddhism has been regarded as superior to the yoga traditions of india because only in buddhist is there a focus on not only letting go (becoming non attached), but also of letting go of letting go (being non attached to becoming non attached). This is essential because it avoids what was known in the western christian traditions as “the sin of the saints”, ie that of pride in ones spiritual attainment.
On a practical sense, what is going on phenomenologically and moment to moment in perception is that we think objects (thoughts, emotions, cars, food) which are somehow “out there” or indeed “in here” are appearing to “us”, the subject. When they do, several things can happen. In the worst cases, the ego is in need of such support (being an incomplete ego, noting that the function of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the west is to construct a strong ego) that the ego identifies with the object: “I am a person who drives a porsche”. When the porsche disappears, suffering occurs, the inherent dukkha in existence: “wherever there is clinging, there is suffering”. This is going on in all human beings. Those humans who engage in some practices of awareness and non-attachment will hopefully suffer this type of experience less, but however they will still be experiencing the aversion and the attraction to sense objects as they arise moment to moment. For example, being attracted to sunshine and aversive to clouds on gloomy days in cambridge. One of the main insight practices taught these days is developing an awareness of how our aversion and attraction to sense objects arises, as this is said to begin to reduce attachment and ultimately to demonstrate the emptiness of the subject-object as a construction in perception.
This last point is critical because whereas almost all other traditions aim to reach some kind of pure unchanging level of consciousness, sometimes equated with religious ideas such as God, the Buddha noted that the very experience of existence (which he called “consciousness” appeared out of a chain of interdependent events in the process of cognition. In other words, our experience of being a subject experiencing the world (object) has no intrinsic reality and is a fabricated consequence of the process: event, sense door data, perception, recognition etc. Liam knows this much better than me because the same set of events in the construction of perception now appears to be well verified within cognitive science. The fabrication of perception and indeed our experience of existence through interdependent co-arising, paticca samuppada, is the central doctrine which leads to the perception of emptiness and the incalculable freedom that entails.
Illustration by Emily bowers
One very important and easier way to practice non attachment in the world is non-attachment to view. This is simply not being attached to your viewpoint, it being a construction based on conditioning which has nothing to do with “you”. If we could even get beyond something as simple as attachment to view in the world, we would have no more wars. Hooray.
An attachment which is notoriously hard to let go of is the attachment to body and mind. Most of us think we are our body and our mind, and even when we realise this is simply ridiculous, we continue to be attached to the pleasant states of mind and body. Many people appear to practice meditation and do physical exercise simply to increase the amount of time they are in pleasant mind body states, indeed often i realise my practice in everyday life has been reduced to this rather poor mode.
Why is non-attachment great? Because it is one of the characteristics of freedom. Buddha did not teach about being good, or achieving something spiritually, he simply taught a method for freedom. You could summarise these practices as “Things don’t exist, and therefore freedom does”. But then again, that is simply another view….
by Jonathan Ekstrom